You will read in the media about the impact of coronavirus on the level of teaching in compulsory schools. There is less talk of art schools. Yet a quarter of a million children attend primary art schools (PAS). What do these bring to us and to children? What makes them special? I put these and not only these questions to Pavel Borský, cellist of Indigo Quartet (a string ensemble), programmer of the musical scene of the Brno Music Marathon Festival, teacher at the Faculty of Theatre of JAMU and at V. Kaprálové PAS Brno as well as regional coordinator of the ZUŠ Open festival. As he himself pointed out, the exact impact of distance learning on art school students is yet to be seen, but the online environment has taught many children how to communicate better using modern technology.
You teach cello and singing at the Vítězslava Kaprálová PAS in Brno, and musical singing at the JAMU’s Faculty of Theatre. With regard to the coronavirus crisis – have you rested this school year? Or did you find it more challenging than the normal way of teaching?
I didn’t rest, because the online classes were still going on and the moment it was possible to start meeting one-on-one, we started to catch up with the previous delayed issues and organize concerts at least for classmates and teachers. Several projects have also moved into the holiday season. Artists need live contact, a real environment, they need to see the audience and feel their reactions.
In general terms, there is talk that some of the methods and practices learned from distance learning can be applied to education. But what about the arts? Do you plan to work with anything in the future?
Personally, I don’t think there’s much of use for us. I see a significant shift in the students’ ability to communicate. Some have learned to better present themselves on social media, but in a theatre setting you need real life. It’s hard to work without an audience and interaction. Therefore, in singing lessons I can introduce continuous recording of performances and their analysis with the student, but it is only an addition. The basis is primarily work based on personal contact.
At the Brno Music Marathon, you have been preparing a musical theatre stage for some time now. This year’s programme is composed of singing, dancing and theatre, just like the musical genre. What was your basis for choosing performers?
There were several perspectives. After last year, I realized that it lacked a certain overlap. A musical is not only about singing, but also about dancing and acting. So I thought of tap dancing, which is an essential part of many musicals. And because we have an excellent and very skilful tap dancer in Brno, Tobiáš Košir, who is a laureate of international competitions and has set up his own studio, I approached him. Then I invited very talented pupils from primary art schools and musical students from the Faculty of Theatre at JAMU. Dasha with Epoque Quartet and their new programme, created for Marathon, called Ellaboration – with reference to Ella Fitzgerald’s music, is the professional cherry on top. It features jazz, soul and pop songs using a subtle form.
Do you have any idea what “musical stuff” you would like to present to visitors in the next few years? Where would you like your scene to go?
As a teacher at JAMU’s Faculty of Theatre, I am going to visit an art university in Madrid, Spain, in the next academic year, and I would generally like my teaching trips to European art schools to become regular. I would like to use this opportunity to make new contacts and thus expand the musical scene in the future with performances by young foreign artists. Even though it is a music festival, I will definitely continue to develop the various overlaps, especially in terms of dance, because I think it gives the musical the right touch.
What do you enjoy about the festival that made you decide to collaborate with it?
My main job is to teach singing at JAMU’s Faculty of Theatre. I enjoy working with young people who are full of energy and ideas, and I’m the kind of teacher who is always keeping an eye on trends and innovations. So to be able to not only teach the students something, but also allow them to perform at a professional event and experience the environment and activities around them is great.
You yourself are a busy active artist, active in the renowned string quartet Indigo Quartet. Do you take care of the dramaturgy there as well? Or how do you determine your repertoire?
No, I am just a regular player in Indigo Quartet, the dramaturgy is handled by my colleague Martin Flašar.
You also have experience as an actor and singer in musicals and productions at venues like the Brno City Theatre or the Brno National Theatre. In addition, you have been a guest cellist in chamber and symphony orchestras, e.g. with Czech Virtuosi, Musica Bohemica or the Austrian Kellag Bigband, among others. Sometimes you accompany singer Lenka Filipová. How did you get into this diverse range of projects? What did it give you?
I got into it mainly because during my studies at the conservatory I was already involved not only in classical music, but also playing in various bands, for example in the band Panenka vyzutá (Bare Maiden), or together with the French chansonnier Joel Bros, where there is a completely different approach to creation. It’s playing without scores, using your own ideas, learning to improvise well and sensitively perceiving harmony. I really enjoy not sitting in one orchestra in one place all my life. Each collaboration is very different in terms of genre, it gives me a lot of good experience, and above all a great insight into the level and the way of working. I must not forget to mention that especially the ensembles you mentioned in your question from my past were or are currently connected with meeting great colleagues in terms of both artistic and human aspects.
Thinking about how to create a programme, how to put it together, what to think about when creating it – is it a difficult discipline?
It’s hard in that I’m doing it outside of my main profession and I simply need to have the right mood and energy for the job. If the performance is to be varied, interesting, and moreover, if it is to fulfil a certain purpose – to connect different worlds, generations and, with a bit of exaggeration, everything with everything – it cannot be invented on the spot. What you need is time and peace. In addition, I always try not to have blinders on and look at it from the point of view of whether what I have come up with will be technically and organizationally feasible.
How is the teaching of thinking about dramaturgy in primary art schools? Are children led to do this? Or is it something that is passed on and taught only at university, for example?
Even though the word dramaturgy itself is probably not part of the typical rhetoric at the schools, it is a common part of practical teaching for pupils. The youngest children learn primarily by example. Whether it’s a first concert, an opening or a dance performance. Every PAS teacher regularly finds themselves creating dramaturgy for their class concerts or participating in large school-wide events. In the case of older pupils, dramaturgy is spoken about quite consciously. The culmination, which often involves the teacher in collaboration with his or her student, is usually the graduation concert.
What is the interest of children and young people in music education? Does demand exceed supply?
I can speak for Brno only, but I am pleasantly surprised that despite the unfavourable times there is interest and the schools are filling up. Although we have experienced a crisis in recent months, we have had only a few children withdrawing at half term, mainly from the collective subjects. But the interest is huge. Parents want to give their children a musical or other education while socializing them in a different group. Staying at home twenty-four hours a day has a negative effect on their development. In general, the interest is mostly from children who have seen other children creating art, either live or in the media, and want to try it too. The national project ZUŠ Open has made an extraordinary contribution to the visibility of primary art schools. In the Czech Republic, we have almost 500 primary art schools with over 250,000 pupils.
However, a large number of people perceive a PAS as a form of club. What is the advantage of the schools over standard schools?
A lot depends on what you expect from the school. Some people just need to learn a few chords on the guitar, draw a small picture, dance a waltz or recite a poem for parents, relatives, friends. Then there are children who are more talented and have ambition. However, a primary art school also offers social education in all of its four disciplines – music, dance, drama and art. Children learn how to behave at a concert, theatre or opening. They learn to communicate with people and the audience, to express their emotions and intentions, to present and describe their artwork or to master a dramatic dialogue on stage. Even if they do something different in their adult life, the ability to communicate well with others, stand up for their opinions and be able to express themselves in public will later be useful in any profession.
What is the state of music students in your area? Are their levels stagnating or have they even declined?
Not in my immediate area; I was surprised that despite online learning many managed to get the job done. But a lot of it was influenced by the individual situation of the student – their background, opportunities to practice, family support, etc. So differences exist between students. However, we are missing a year of practice, and it will be very difficult to make up for it, especially at the Faculty of Theatre. Therefore, we continue to teach partially over the summer and outside the semester. I am sincerely glad that at least the musical graduates have the opportunity to perform at the Brno Music Marathon Festival and experience the reactions of a live audience.
The Czech system of primary art education is said to be unique in many respects. Can you expound on that? What is our quality in relation to foreign countries?
For us, it is absolutely essential that primary art schools are not clubs, but have the status of schools. The children always receive a report card at the end of the term, and we have qualified teachers. Auditions are held for new teaching positions. Some teachers are also successful internationally. We have a great tradition of art education in our country, we have our own system, curricula, children have to attend regularly. Of course, there are also differences between schools in the number of pupils, the courses offered and the quality of teaching. On the other hand, there are plenty of opportunities to profile oneself, even by choosing a particular teacher who focuses on a particular style or teaching method that is suitable for a particular student.
Do we have a dense network of primary art schools?
Yes, especially in Moravia. It comes from folk tradition; we have a lot of cimbalom and brass bands. Music has a strong position in our country, it was something to build on gradually. Slovakia has a similar education system. Nowhere else that I know of.
The ZUŠ Open project, which could not take place this year due to the coronavirus situation and with which you are cooperating, will also have its programme at the Marathon. Visitors to the festival will experience some of the musical performances. What young talents will you and your colleague Irena Pohl Houkalová introduce to the visitors?
I’m in charge of the Saturday programme in the “Children’s Room” as part of the music and visual project “No-street Busking” by artist Kateřina Šedá, which I think is great. Not only children from Brno, but also from Chomutov, Písek, Vlašim and Tišnov will come to play. The programme will be very varied, with singing, playing drums, accordion, trumpet, violin, flute or guitar. I’m thinking of taking my cello with me and spontaneously joining some of the performers. On Sunday afternoon, thanks to the youngest singers, the ZUŠ Open will be partly present on the Musical Stage. The main programme will however take place in the courtyard of Stará radnice (Old Town Hall) in Brno, where ensembles from primary art schools from Vysoké Mýto, Pardubice, Havlíčkův Brod, Písek and Hradec Králové will perform.
What kind of teacher are you? I also ask because your singing students are gaining success in singing competitions. At the end of June, for example, Adam Stašek from the Vítězslava Kaprálová Primary Art School won the 2nd prize in the Euro Pop Contest and thus qualified for the international finale in Berlin.
The success with Adam is huge because he will be the only one representing the Czech Republic at the Grand Prix in Berlin and will compete together with other singers from more than fifteen countries, and not only from Europe. Other than this, I sincerely try to be a good teacher and the greatest reward for me is when my students enjoy their singing or playing the cello. It is very important to know the personality of the student. Everyone is different and comes from a different background, with a different wish and goal. I then try to discover his/her abilities, strengthen them and steer them in the direction he/she wants to go. As far as teaching at the JAMU Faculty of Theatre is concerned, I don’t see the school as the culmination of a student’s professional life, but only as a vehicle for the work he or she wants to do later. So I’m not the type of teacher who strictly forbids extracurricular activities, I see it as a plus. I then prepare individual tailor-made lessons for my pupils and students.
Do young people have stage fright?
In the first year yes, in the fourth year no, if we are talking about JAMU. Above all, they are afraid of rating. As they progress further and make more public appearances and gain experience, the nervousness subsides. At least the unhealthy type. In primary art schools, there are cases where some children are very shy. In this case, they perform at smaller events such as class parties. But for the vast majority, once they have experienced one small success, they are much more open to performing.
Do you observe in your practice that children have more stage fright due to virtual communication and less personal contact than children in earlier times?
We’ll find out intensely now after lockdown. I don’t think it will be such a problem with older children. Those who already have experience with performing are rather hungry for communal events. But for young children in the first, second year, this can be a problem. Unfortunately, they “missed” a year of life, which is very important in their years. They have not experienced a proper regime, duties, cooperation and communication with others in a large collective. We’ll see what effect it has on them.